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Some thoughts on ‘My Appearance’

ABL and ALH's ideas on 'My Appearance'

How does David Foster Wallace present the world of television and the way it shapes our view of reality and ourselves?

1. What are the different meanings of ‘appearance’ in the story?

i) Edilyn’s visual appearance as a woman in a gendered society: how attractive is she, how old/young does she look, what amount and type of makeup should she wear, what clothing? One example of this is her discussion with Charmian and the latter’s advice to aim for “solidity and simplicity”, which hints at the resistance of sexualisation by an allegedly misogynist Letterman.

ii) her appearance on a talk show, which could be likened to her sitting at the centre of a perfect circle of dynamite (like the executive coordinator of NBC Sports who is on before her): her appearance provokes a symbolic explosion that she is at the seemingly safe epicentre of, but it does have consequences for her private life.

iii) surface vs depth – what people think they know about her versus her ‘invisible heart of hearts’ (Rudy) – but Edi tries to appear as she is for the most part, though it’s not clear to what extent she does this on the show. There is a dichotomy between her husband wanting her to “appear” sharp and relaxed and Edi wanting “to be” sharp and relaxed (p181).

2. The driver’s head is ‘as still as a photo’. What is the relationship between reality and image in the story?

Reality is blurred with image in the story; there is no clear demarcation between the two. Real life is described as if it is a media product, steeped in artifice: as Edi drives to the show, she notices the driver’s head is ‘as still as a photo’.

Conversely, the world of image shapes our perception of reality: Edi imagines that the dynamite on stage will produce ‘something tornadic, coloured pink’, perhaps like something she’s experienced on television, but the real explosion is disappointingly grey. The internal world of feelings and image-associations also shapes external perception, as when Edi perceives the sunset as ‘wound-coloured’, echoing her earlier metaphorical vision of Ron’s mouth.

So, a lot of Edi’s experiences or perceptions are surreal, for example the cigarette hissing and ‘gushing smoke into the lit air’, or ‘bleeding smoke’ (182). This surrealism shows the challenge of having an accurate perception of the physical world, let alone other conscious beings. What is her projection and what is real? We can’t know. This could be not only about TV but also about drugs, which Edi and Rudy take.

3. How does ‘My Appearance’ handle the ‘behind the scenes’ of television sections? Does it present a ‘jeering, surfacey look “behind the scenes” of the very televisual front people already jeer at’, or does it succeed in making the ‘familiar strange’ (see ‘E Unibus Pluram’)?

Wallace doesn’t seem to jeer at the mechanisms of the television; while he does explore its workings, it is as a means of diagnosing its ubiquity and impact on individuals; there is a sincerity to this which is wrapped up in irony. We are left with uncertainty over which view of Letterman is correct: Edi’s or Rudy’s. In this way it could be argued that the familiar is made strange as we are actively encouraged to question the image of Letterman that we are presented with at the start. This story feels more realistic than some of his other stories, but its surrealist elements and conflicting perspectives don’t allow readers any certainty about what transpires, which defamiliarises the reality of TV we take for granted.

4. Does Edilyn or do Rudy and Ron have the more reliable perception, or does Wallace not allow us to decide? And what does your answer mean for understanding the story?

Wallace doesn’t allow us to decide. We cannot know who is the most perceptive generally or has the most accurate perception about David Letterman, Edilyn or her husband Rudolf. Nor can we tell who is better off (in terms of living their life and forging a career) in the postmodern milieu – sincere Edi or cynical Rudy. Edi (and Charmian) is presented as naive and Rudy and Ron as sophisticated, which may suggest the men are better off. After all, the men have successful careers, they coach Edi, she is willing to follow their advice; she validates Rudy by saying a few times that he “did know human nature.” But Edi sees David Letterman close up, which suggests a first-hand witnesses’ greater insight. And the narrative ending seems to side with Edi; not only is she largely the narrator, but as she looks back in the penultimate paragraph, she can tell Rudy is not really looking at the sun (insisting on her own ability to perceive: ‘I’d watched him’), implying her perception is more accurate and more honest than his. What’s more, Rudy could not tell when she was being sincere, and he contradicts himself when he says nobody is how they seem then immediately says ‘I believe what I see.’ (200) There is also a theme of sexism throughout, which undercuts the male point of view.

This puts the reader in the same situation or stance of epistemological uncertainty that culture is in generally as a result of postmodern cynical irony. It allows the reader to feel the impasse the culture is in. It dramatises and allows the reader to experience the difficulties of finding agreement between the characters: note that when Edi does ask her husband what he finally thinks of them both, it was a ‘mistake’ – which in turn shows how the epistemological uncertainty leads to moral and relational problems.

5. ‘My empty ear did feel a bit violated.’ What role do the references to sexism and misogyny play in the story?

They undercut the male perspective of a) Rudy/Ron as knowing how the industry works and how cynical, postmodern anti-shows work as opposed to Edi to whom they condescend as someone naïve; b) the cynical, nothing-is-serious view of David Letterman on the show. There is a lot of imagery suggesting a power-dynamic and underlying violence to the men that is uncomfortable for the reader: mouths as wounds or gashes; the way her husband appropriates her body: ‘My husband touched my hair’ ‘He took my arm’ p178. ‘He used his hand and my cheek to open my face toward his.’ p180; Edi and Rudy enter into ‘negotiations’ p186

6. Moving beyond reality: how does the story explore the self-reflexiveness of the postmodern TV world through the character of the husband and his perceptions?

Rudy’s identity resides firmly in the inside world of television rather than in the real world. This is reinforced at the end when he praises the ‘explosive’ sunset, which is ‘reflected and doubled in that bit of river,’ though Edi says that he hasn’t looked at the real sunset, but the reflected one in the water instead. He is the ironic observer, knowing about the basic insincerity of the media, but is either not willing or able to step outside it. He agrees to go along with it and beat David Letterman at his own game. He chooses not to resist the dominance of Letterman’s ironic mode of conversation, which Edi understands as insincere communication in his private life.

Wallace’s reproduction of the extract from Delillo’s ‘White Noise’ in ‘E Unibus Puram’ is used to illustrate how TV numbs people to its essential hollowness because it celebrates its own emptiness:

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”
He seemed immensely pleased by this.

In the postmodern world, we’re all barn-watchers, ironically aware of the way media is constructed, unable to escape. Our relationship to the media conditions our relationship to others.

7. What kind of irony does DFW use?

In order to criticise the cynical postmodern irony of TV and society, Wallace uses traditional literary irony, which creates a distance between the writer and the subject of critique. He illustrates how the ironic stance epitomised by Letterman, Ron and Rudy isolates and alienates, making commitment and engaged communication more difficult. He also ironically portrays Edi – an insider rather than an outsider to this world and therefore fully embedded within it – as able at least to think of rebelling against it.

Edi seems to espouse values of sincerity and the real as opposed to irony and appearance, but Wallace complicates these binary oppositions through the use of verbal irony, for instance: the different meanings of the word appearance ironically play against each other and he is therefore undermining a world predicated upon either/or conceptions.

Wallace’s use of irony ultimately opens up questions rather than giving us tyrannical answers. Edi is inside and outside; sincere and not; complicit and rebellious. We are left at the end with ambiguity and epistemological uncertainty over whose perspective to align with, which is a more authentic reflection of the predicament of the individual in a postmodern society. Is Wallace’s irony liberating rather than ‘enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about’ (E Unibus Pluram)?

8. Having in part diagnosed the problems television creates, what kind of solution does Wallace posit in this story? Is sincerity a viable response?

In ‘E Unibus Pluram’, Wallace suggests that the new rebels against the insidious co-opting of irony by TV and literature ‘might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled-eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal’. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.’ (81) In this story, sincerely-held values are worthy but very difficult to maintain and sustain in the postmodern, TV-saturated world, which in turn makes it difficult to sustain a sense of self. The director on the show cannot decide whether to be serious about his life’s work; see also Edi’s ‘I have worked hard’ in the final paragraph to both show and to remember what sort of person she is. This implies she had forgotten, that we can forget, that moral knowledge can be destroyed.

9. Looking back at Wallace’s responses in ‘E Unibus Pluram’ to TV’s postmodern co-opting of irony rendering critique of TV impossible, do you think ‘My Appearance’ falls in the spectrum of these suggested responses or does he return to a modern form of realism in the story?

He doesn’t simply reproduce the cynicism that he notices in ‘Image-Fiction’ writers. In fact, he uses irony to critique as well as open up questions rather than reduce the world to binaries. There is no objective narrative voice, which alerts us to the subjectivity of perception: the difficulty of living in the modern media-saturated world is precisely the difficulty of locating truth. This story feels more realistic than many of his other stories in terms of the characterisation and lesser reliance on metafictional techniques that draw attention to the writing.

He doesn’t eschew the subject of television, making it centre stage here, unlike the ‘neanderthal’ response. He responds to the problem of television and deconstructs TV’s myth-making by fictionalising the real David Letterman.

10. What other devices or techniques did you notice?

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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